Dusty Roads and Drying Deltas: Water Restrictions Spell Danger for the PAD

The Alberta Energy Regulator is so concerned about the low water levels on the Athabasca River, it has blocked temporary diversion permits across the region. This means that bridges aren’t being cleaned, dust isn’t being sprayed down, and drilling operations will need to secure another source of water instead of pumping it out of the river. The AER has not, however, mandated oil sands companies do business differently, though they did ask for a voluntary restriction. For the Peace Athabasca Delta, will this make an ounce of difference?

I have to wonder, how much water is being withdrawn for dust dampening in the first place? There are no numbers to indicate how much water this will save for our natural systems, but can we agree that they are likely puny compared to industry’s intake? I am also under the impression that the oil sands are already using the minimum amount of water in the first place, so I don’t expect this voluntary restriction would make a big difference. In time we may learn differently.

A new study published by Climatic Change says this restriction is just a taste of what is to come.

Simon Donner, co-author on the paper, says in the Edmonton Journal, “Climate change is going to affect the river so much it’ll actually affect how much the industry can withdraw. This summer is basically a preview of the future.”

Donner’s model predicts that precipitation will increase, but come earlier in the year and contribute only to spring runoff. This may bode well for the Peace Athabasca Delta, which requires regular flooding to keep the fragile ecosystem healthy. It could also spell disaster to the tune of billions of dollars for the Athabasca Oil Sands, who rely on river water for their operations. The worse case scenario, Donner explains, is to expect huge delays if the industry doesn’t adapt to use less water, or develop ways to capture that all that extra springtime water. For example, one of Imperial Oil’s facilities stores up to 3 month supply of water.

“”In some cases … we’re talking up to two months or more per year in which the regulators would do what they did (this week) — no more water.” – Simon Donner, professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, to the Edmonton Journal

What we wouldn’t give for a crystal ball to see how climate change will affect the Peace Athabasca Delta. One simple assumption to be made is that climate change will force society into using renewable energies, and away from oil, thereby limiting the oil sands expansion. More precipitation could assist with the flooding of the PAD, although the Athabasca River contributes a low percentage to the PAD compared to the Peace River. Another, less positive prediction: Could low water levels kneecap the politics of sustainability and responsible regulation when these industries cry out in thirst (and lost revenue)? In a world where profits are king and Canada is crafting the most expensive petroleum around, climate change could make the oil industry worse for everybody.

Here is a film produced by Mikisew Cree First Nation that shows how low water levels have affected their delta, and Wood Buffalo National Park.

In Danger – A Call to Save Wood Buffalo National Park from Mark Gustafson on Vimeo.

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About Michael Tyas

Michael Tyas is the managing editor of One River News. He graduated the University of Manitoba with an honours degree in environmental studies, and is a professional videographer and video trainer. He produced the feature length documentary "One River, Many Relations" in Fort Chipewyan. He continues to work with indigenous communities to share their stories around resource extraction, industrial development, and impacts on traditional territories.
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